Column: are lockdowns effective?

Comment

Image Description: an Oxford skyline with cartoon images of the vaccine and the virus. 

Our Comment Columnists, Clara Morrissey and Dan Harrison, discuss the implications of national lockdowns, and whether they should be imposed. 

Dan Harrison is our On the Left columnist. He is a first year History and Politics student at Worcester.

Image credit: Tian Chen

Uncertainty is everywhere. It is not helped by the Prime Minister, who on 25th January said in the same breath that he hoped to ease some of the restrictions before the 15th February review date but also that he could also not guarantee that schools would return before Easter. False hope and false proclamations characterise his leadership, but allow me to bring a little more certainty to our current predicament. In one sense we are all in a good position, because we are under a national lockdown. They work. They work, because they reduce transmission of the virus. They work because this consequently reduces the rate of infections, hospital admissions and deaths. This is supported by unimpeachable evidence from the first lockdown.

You do not need to be a highly trained epidemiologist to understand why they work. Coronavirus primarily spreads through contact with an infected person, so dramatically limiting human contact reduces the spread of the disease. A national lockdown was right in March and it is right now, especially given the presence of three new variants of the virus in the UK. The UK variant is believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain of the virus and the Prime Minister suggested on the 22nd January that it may be associated with a higher rate of mortality. Therefore, the only policy that can realistically protect the NHS – that we all cherish and clapped for on a Thursday – from collapsing is the current one.

Whilst it will take years to comprehend the effects of national lockdowns on the economy and mental health, it is more important than ever before to take experts seriously.

Yet there are lockdown sceptics who oppose this ‘police state.’ They believe that lockdowns cause more harm than good. Whilst it will take years to comprehend the effects of national lockdowns on the economy and mental health, it is more important than ever before to take experts seriously. So when some on the libertarian right argue about the other health issues that a lockdown causes, they make a valid point, but what about the damage a more laissez-faire approach would cause? The majority of experts take a different view to the one that a lockdown is deeply damaging to our health or that it just delays infections and deaths that will happen anyway. In June 2020 a research paper published in ‘Nature,’ one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, concluded that ‘lockdowns in particular have had a large effect on reducing transmission.’ The British Medical Journal concluded in the summer of 2020 that ‘earlier implementation of lockdown (during the first wave) was associated with a larger reduction in the incidence of Covid-19.’

What about trying to build up herd immunity through allowing the population to be exposed to the virus? This was the thinking in Sweden. They have kept schools and eateries open, even nightclubs and gyms and the result? Sweden has a higher mortality rate from covid than any of the Nordic nations. In December, the King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf, in a rare public rebuke of the government, called his nation’s own strategy a ‘failure.’ There are serious scientific and ethical issues raised by this policy. We are still learning about the virus, so whilst it is true that most people who are infected develop an immune response within a couple of weeks, we do not know how strong or lasting that immune response is. Or how it is different for different people. There have also been cases of individuals developing the virus for a second time. It is also true that most people who are infected are either asymptomatic or show mild symptoms, but some become seriously ill and we are only now learning about ‘long covid.’ Therefore, a policy of herd immunity through exposing the population to the virus would be a reckless gamble. The best way to develop herd immunity is through a vaccination programme.

It should never be the default policy; it should only ever be used as a last resort.

Lockdown is tough. It should never be the default policy; it should only ever be used as a last resort. But there is hope, because there are clear signs that this lockdown is working. On 6th January 2020 977 people were admitted to hospital with coronavirus in London. On the 21st January there were 598. Still too high, but the early success of this lockdown combined with a promising start to the vaccination programme means that the end is in sight.

 

Clara Morrissey is our On the Right columnist. She’s a second year theology student at Keble.

Image Credit: Matthew Kurnia

In March last year, the government imposed a three-week lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and “protect the NHS”. We were told that this was a necessary precaution to flatten the curve, and that things would return to normal by summer – and I suspect most of us believed them. Yet no one could have anticipated that, almost a year on, what was meant to be three weeks would turn into an endless cycle, and that any hope of a return to normality would become but a distant fantasy in our Covid-conscious, social-distancing, Brave New World. 

No realm of life was left unscathed by the first lockdown. For instance, an estimated 10 million people now require medical treatment for mental health reasons, as roughly half of UK adults and two-thirds of young people report a significant decline in their mental wellbeing. Due to cancer screenings being sidelined, it is expected that 2,300 cancer cases were left unreported each week last year, and from March to July, school closures lead to an estimated 46% increase in educational inequality. The lockdown also had devastating economic consequences. From August to October, with the forced closure of businesses, 370,000 were left out of a job, a record high, and by June the unemployment rate is predicted to rise from 4.9% to at least 7.7%.

It is no coincidence, for instance, that despite enforcing some of the strictest lockdown measures, the UK has had one of the worst death rates in the world.

Besides the needless collateral damage caused by the lockdowns, there is also little evidence that they actually work. It is no coincidence, for instance, that despite enforcing some of the strictest lockdown measures, the UK has had one of the worst death rates in the world. This is likely because lockdowns often counterintuitively lead people to break the rules in defiance of such draconian measures. 

Milton Friedman famously noted that “nothing is as permanent as a temporary government programme”.

Furthermore, lockdowns also set a dangerous precedent for the concentration of government power. In the West, it is easy to become complacent, thinking that ‘limited government’ and ‘individual freedom’ are no more than abstract ideologies with no real-world consequences. Admittedly, the use of emergency powers by governments can be justified in the short-term. Yet we need only look to our history books to know the dangers of giving up our basic freedoms so quickly. Indeed, Milton Friedman famously noted that “nothing is as permanent as a temporary government programme”. This threat is likely to be felt later on, when there is nothing to stop governments from extending these measures beyond what can be justified. What will happen when the virus is no longer a threat? Will the government voluntarily hand our rights back to us, or will they find another threat, another slogan, with which they can continue to manufacture control? 

Ultimately, when cancer patients are being sidelined, economic recessions are threatening people’s livelihoods, and our basic freedoms are at risk of being overturned indefinitely, these questions need to be asked. We can no longer dismiss lockdown sceptics as granny-killing conspiracy theorists, despite what Matt Hancock may want us to believe. Indeed, part of what it means to live in a society is learning how to manage risk, and realising that our actions have consequences beyond ourselves. The real question now is whether governments should force people into compliance through state control, or trust people to make their own decisions based on the data. I suggest the latter.

 

Image Credit: Tian Chen

 

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